Illini hockey gears up for tough schedule

And so it begins.

Illini hockey (2-0) has looked impressive early in the season, starting the year with a four-game win streak and outscoring opponents by 20 goals (28-8) and scoring an average of seven goals per game.

But, after two weeks of tune-up games, No. 7 Illinois enters the bulk of its schedule this weekend, starting off with hosting the defending ACHA Division-II National Champion Michigan State.

Though technically in a division below Illinois, Michigan State is the best team in that division, and Illini senior goaltender Nick Clarke is no stranger to the tough competition the Spartans bring.

“They should be no easy opponent, and we have to come out and treat it just like any other game,” Clarke said. “We usually start the year off playing them and we know what to expect.”

The Spartans have 17 players returning from their national championship team and look to be strong contenders to retain their title come March, just as the Illini are poised to go after the ACHA’s Division-I National Championship.

While Illinois remains focused on this weekend’s series against the Spartans, the team is fully aware of what’s right around the corner on the schedule.

After this weekend’s games against Michigan State, the Illini must battle through one of the toughest schedules in the nation, playing No. 9 Iowa State, No. 2 Arizona State, No. 8 Robert Morris, No. 3 Lindenwood and then-No. 5 Ohio, all in a row.

“Michigan State is the best Division-II team in the nation,” captain Austin Bostock said. “These games are important, but they’re no Iowa State and they’re no Arizona State.”

While being pitted against some of the best teams the ACHA has to offer, the Illini players have been working towards eliminating small, individual mistakes every week in order to make the team’s on-ice performance flow properly.

After giving up four goals against Northern Illinois, a Division-II team, Illini head coach Nick Fabbrini said he was upset with the team’s defensive performance.

But while fixing that problem last Friday by shutting out Southern Illinois on the way to a 6-0 win, the Illini saw a number of minor roughing penalties handed out to each team.

The Illini have already racked up 64 penalty minutes in their first four games, meaning the team’s disciplinary issues have forced them to play over an entire game’s worth of time with a shortened bench.

Fabbrini said the Illini need to keep their discipline in-check if they expect to bring home the ACHA Division-I National Championship they’re working toward.

Despite minor blemishes throughout a dominating first two weeks of hockey, the Illini players already feel that they’ve improved as a team.

Rookie goaltender John Olen commended the team’s defense during his second victory of the season, saying they made his job between the pipes easier than it should have been.

“We have to keep getting better and better before we play better teams,” Olen said. “We just have to take it one week at a time.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.